A forward-thinking forest lodge is giving visitors the opportunity to get up close to this South American nation’s extraordinary wildlife, says Harriet O’Brien.
The sound effects were surreal. From behind the forest's myriad veils of green came an ensemble of pulsing, chirping, shrieking and whirring worthy of counterpoint orchestration. Then, with a sudden crash, the tempo changed and the air was filled with guttural bellowing. Carlos stopped in his tracks. "Howler monkey!'' he cried. "Let's find it.'' And with that he bounded down the red-mud hillside. We slithered clumsily after, feeling almost out of our element.
Clutching a creeper, I came to a stop and, directed by Carlos, peered into the canopy below. More crashing, then a small black monkey with a big black ruff swung into view, performing aerial acrobatics while honing its vocal amplitude. The noise was out of all proportion to the creature's size. I gathered, it was a male shouting about his territory. Magically, the dense green had yielded us a sight as well as the sound.
We were on a guided hike in cloud forest in north-west Ecuador. A tiny country by South American standards (only a little larger than the UK), Ecuador packs in remarkable natural sights. It famously possesses the Galapagos Islands specks of land way out west that get the big press, and the big crowds.
However, the mainland's northern reaches also hold astonishing riches a wonderful mix of rolling countryside; active volcanoes around the capital, Quito; and that vibrant cloud forest where we are now, a mystical terrain, part of the exuberant Choco forest that runs from Panama to Colombia.
It's a vulnerable and now increasingly protected belt where incoming Pacific Ocean air is cooled, forms clouds and mist whose moisture nurtures a wondrous biodiversity: ropes of creepers; swathes of moss; succulent bromeliads that live high up in the forks of trees; flourishes of tiny orchids; trees of all shapes and sizes from cecropias, with leaves so waxed they look white, to "walking palms'' that put out stilt roots so as to move towards the light. And all this plant life supports an amazing range of wildlife.
We had come to see and hear these natural wonders not only on foot but also by becoming cloud-forest residents ourselves at an innovative new cloud-forest lodge. Complete with spa, bar, restaurant, Jacuzzi, 22 bedrooms and ample balconies for bird watching, Mashpi Lodge has been conceived as a luxury billet for nature ventures.
Fourteen years ago, the estate was bought by Roque Sevilla, one of Ecuador's most successful businessmen and an ex-mayor of Quito. On hearing that a moribund timber company was selling off a barely touched slice of primary cloud forest just two and a half hours' drive from the capital, he moved swiftly to acquire it simply, he told me, so he could protect it. He had, he said, no thoughts at the time of adding a hotel.
Roque had driven up from Quito to welcome us. He greeted us at the new hummingbird centre, established by resident biologist Carlos Morochz at the reserve's entrance. As we marvelled at the iridescent blur of a violet-tailed sylph, all of about 16cm long, Sevilla explained how opening the Mashpi reserve to guests had required careful planning to maximise local involvement and minimise the impact of constructing the facilities. Only one rough track, cut by the timber company, has been used the reserve has no other roads. Plans for a hydro-electric plant to power the lodge have been put on hold, due largely to transport problems.
Roque proudly showed us Mashpi's aerial tramway, designed for viewing the canopy which contains about 40 per cent of the forest's wildlife. It was still incomplete then, but is now in service, with two gondolas operating on a 2km stretch just above the treeline. Yet, to my mind, better still are the plans Roque outlined for a couple of ingenious aerial cycle-ways, on which work is due to start soon. Pedal-powered devices will be suspended from cables over short stretches of the canopy and will be ridden, tandem-like, by two harnessed guests who could move backwards and forwards as they wish.
The lodge itself is devised to be supremely comfortable and offers a great sense of light and space, but Roque is clear that it should not upstage the cloud forest, where guests will want to spend most of their time. The decor is soothing; outside walls are, where possible, glass so that you look almost constantly on to a tremendous spread of plant species through ever-changing mist swirls. The generously sized bedrooms tend towards the ascetic in terms of pared-down style, and each features a floor-to-ceiling window with a section that opens so that you can hear the forest as well as see it. "Sleep with the window open the night sounds are wonderful,'' was Roque's advice as he left us in the company of Carlos and two of Mashpi's resident guides.
The guiding element is the most important aspect here. Walking in cloud forest, you're in an alien green world where wildlife teems all around, only most of the time you can't see it. You'll get wet. You'll dry off. Sudden strange noises might result in a sighting or not. I felt it was like an enchanted treasure hunt as jewel-like beetles crossed our path. I kept hearing a loud, persistent call which turned out to come from tiny brown frogs. Then a big-billed toucanet flashed its red-tipped tail and melded into a tree.
A night walk was a challenge to the senses. You look for eyes, you listen for calls. We turned off our torches, our path lit by fluorescent foxfire funghi. Brown bats swooped overhead. Our guide stopped to show us a tarantula, which then darted away. Minutes later, a tayra weasel the size of small pig scampered past. I was feebly grateful not to encounter the jaguar that had, on other occasions, been sighted near our path. Returning to the lodge, we found one side of the building coated with enormous moths.
We moved on the next day, driving about four hours north-east and twisting into a strikingly different landscape of valleys patchworked with cow-grazed pastures. We were heading to the Hacienda Zuleta estate, a sort of yang world to Mashpi's yin. We arrived in hazy sunshine and entered a wide, cobbled courtyard surrounded by neat, white buildings decked with roses and potted geraniums. A couple of large snoozy dogs wagged up to us hospitably. The charm of the old colonial ranch was palpable.
Hacienda Zuleta lies in the foothills of the Andes at an altitude of about 2800m. The estate dates back to the late 17th century when the land in the area belonged to Jesuits. It was developed, like many such estates, under order of the King of Spain as part of the post-conquest colonisation several of its buildings remain, more or less, as they would have looked in the 17th century. Fast forward now, through various changes of proprietor, to the 20th century, when the estate was inherited by Galo Plaza. In the late 1940s, he became president of Ecuador as well as a national icon for his frankness and fair-mindedness. Hacienda Zuleta now belongs to his five daughters and son, and it is run by Fernando Polanco, one of Plaza's grandchildren.
There's a happy balance here of blue-blooded heritage, comfortable family home and working estate. The property exudes a feeling of generosity and abundance. The house is filled with antiques, books, oil paintings. It backs on to glorious gardens and, in the land around, there are fields of barley, wheat, potatoes, quinoa and more. There are 2000 sheep and 300 dairy cows, a trout farm, a worm farm and a cheese factory making 11 varieties. Fernando explained that welcoming guests is a relatively new activity here. In 1995, they developed facilities for "horseback tourism'' with visitors riding between haciendas. This was so popular that, in 2003, the operation expanded and they now offer dedicated holidays at Hacienda Zuleta. The 15 bedrooms are all devised to be both elegant and cosy. My room had an exquisite locally embroidered bedspread and a woodburning stove that was lit at 6pm.
I had spent much of the afternoon exploring the estate on horseback. There are plenty of hiking and mountain biking options, but I was urged to go riding I wouldn't tune fully into Ecuador unless I did so. Last seen on a horse in a junior gymkhana, I was doubtful. But among the 20 or so animals available for guests to ride at the hacienda, there are several placid creatures.
We sauntered out on a tour taking in resident goofy-looking llamas and culminating with a visit to the estate's condor centre. The largest flying bird in the world, the condor is critically endangered. Yet, said Fernando, because it is Ecuador's national symbol many people try to keep condors as pets, which usually ends in misery all round. Several have been successfully rescued by the centre. I gazed, amazed, at a huge black-and-white female in a large enclosure. Yet I wasn't prepared for the sudden sight of a wild condor: as we trotted through the lush farmland, a prodigious raptor glided overhead, its magnificent shape etched against the late afternoon sky.
That lone, backlit condor has settled in my mind's eye, along with cloud forest visions of an acrobatic howler monkey, emerald beetles and psychedelic moths. And there they remain, striking, internalised souvenirs of extraordinary Ecuador.